Thursday, April 28, 2016


By Toni Mount

A yellow fog filled Gilbert Eastleigh’s apothecary’s shop with its sulphurous airs, nosing into every corner. Gilbert suppressed a cough as he poured the mixture from a flask into a bubbling retort. A new cloud of vapour spewed forth, hissing, writhing like a serpent, making the old man’s eyes water with its venomous breath.

Gilbert is the medieval ‘apothecary’ in ‘The Colour of Poison’ but what, exactly, was an apothecary and what did he do?

Medieval apothecaries were the equivalent of our modern pharmacists. An apothecary’s shop was full of various cures, most of which he prepared himself. He was usually a trusted member of the community, but at times, apothecaries were accused of practising magic or witchcraft. In an age before folk had easy access to doctors and when hospitals were religious foundations, more interested in curing your soul than your body, the apothecary was an ordinary person’s best hope of a cure or relief from an illness. Because apothecaries saw different people with various illnesses each day, most had a huge knowledge of the human body and herbal remedies.

Early in the Middle Ages, an apothecary would have cultivated all the plants and herbs needed for his medicines himself. Later, supplies became more organised, especially in cities like London, York and Bristol, with individuals growing plants to order for the apothecaries.

The recipes for the wines, syrups, cordials and medicines were passed down through the generations, from master to apprentice. They were closely guarded secrets too, since the most successful apothecary would have the most customers. While some apothecaries worked on a casual basis from their own homes, many had their own retail premises, usually a small shop. The front of the shop would have shelves full of medicines and herbs and in the back section, the apothecary would prepare medicines as and when they were needed. Ideally, he would also have access to a garden, where he could grow some of the less exotic herbs and plants he needed to prepare his cures. Some of the most popular medicines were prepared in advance, ready for sale, just as in a modern-day pharmacy. Other cures were prepared as and when needed, and were made up precisely, with the apothecary using his knowledge of the patient and the illness to prepare what he thought would be the ideal remedy.

Apothecaries were often spicers or pepperers as well. Because their work involved weighing out small amounts of herbs and spices for use in medicine, or for direct sale to customers, their trade was regulated by the Grocers’ Guild. It was impossible to separate the two businesses completely as both were involved in importing and distributing spices from abroad, for use in cooking and in the preparation of products such as spiced wines. In addition to food and drugs, apothecaries also sold inks and pigments to the stationers, beauty products and perfumes, substances used in fumigation and pest control and even good luck charms and novelties such as serpent-stones – what we know to be ammonite fossils.

A collection of medical recipes from the fifteenth century [now MS136 at the Literary Society of London] has remedies which make use of herbs that really could have performed the cure as intended:

For the Migraine take half a dishful of barley, one handful each of betony, vervain and other herbs that are good for the head; and when they be well boiled together, take them up and wrap them in a cloth and lay them to the sick head and it shall be whole – I proved.

A sick headache might well be eased by this poultice. Betony was a favourite herb in medieval times and was taken internally for a range of ailments. It’s still used today in treatments for nervous headaches and some types of migraine. Vervain is also used in modern medicine as a nerve tonic and as a calming restorative for patients in a debilitated condition. It too is used to treat migraine and depression.

For those troubled with digestive problems, this fifteenth century remedy would have helped:

To void Wind that is the cause of Colic take cumin and anise, of each equally much, and lay it in white wine to steep, and cover it over with wine and let it stand still so three days and three nights. And then let it be taken out and laid upon an ash board for to dry nine days and be turned about. And at the nine days’ end, take and put it in an earthen pot and dry over the fire and then make powder thereof. And then eat it in pottage or drink it and it shall void the wind that is the cause of colic.

Both these spices, anise and cumin, are carminatives, so this medicine would do exactly what it said on the tin – or earthen pot. The herbs dill and fennel could be used instead to the same effect – twentieth century gripe water for colicky babies contained dill. Wind and constipation were common preoccupations in the Middle Ages because folk ate so many pulses and little roughage, apart from cabbage.

Despite such suitable treatments as these, other remedies, despite the use of some exotic ingredients, could only have worked as panaceas. These concoctions are for gout:

Take badger’s grease and swine’s grease and hare’s grease and cat’s grease, dog’s grease and capon’s grease and suet of a deer and sheep’s tallow, of each equally much and melt them in a pan. Then take the juice of herb-robert, morell, mallow and comfrey and daisy and rue, plantain and maidenhair, knapweed and dragance, of each equally much juice, and fry them in the pan with the aforesaid greases, and keep it well, for the best ointment for gout is this. Or:

Take an owl and pluck it clean, and open it clean and salt it. Put it in a new pot and cover it with a stone and put it in an oven and let it stand till it be burnt. And then stamp [pound] it with boar’s grease and anoint the gout therewith.

A cough cure was more pleasant, consisting of the juice of horehound to be mixed with diapenidion and eaten. Horehound is good for treating coughs and diapenidion is a confection made of barley water, sugar and whites of eggs, drawn out into threads, so perhaps a cross between candy floss and sugar strands. It would have tasted nice and sugar is good for the chest, still available in an over-the-counter cough mixture as linctus simplex. Another pleasant cough treatment was coltsfoot comfits, like tiny sugary sticks of pale brown rock. King Henry III had the apothecary, Philip of Gloucester, supply him with 7½ lbs of diapenidion when the king visited the West Country in May 1265, along with 5lbs of grana, all together costing 7s 6d. My source for this [The Royal Apothecaries by Leslie G Matthews, 1967, pub by the Wellcome Historical Medical Library] suggests ‘grana’ meant aromatic seeds to aid digestion, like caraway or cumin, or it could have been Grains of Paradise, a kind of pepper. But ‘grana’ was also a name given to the exotic ‘kermes’ – dried scale insects, imported as a crimson dye. Could they have been used medicinally? Or was grana to be used to dye the king’s robes?

Another medicinal possibility is that grana was for dyeing the bed linen and curtains as part of the treatment of smallpox, in which the sickroom was swathed in red. Today we know this wasn’t so daft since red cloth filters out UV light, to reduce the production of scar tissue and to protect the eyesight of patients with smallpox or measles (these two diseases were hard to tell apart in the early stages anyway) – red light works for burns victims and would have decreased the pock marking in the case of smallpox. The medieval apothecary, like Gilbert Eastleigh in ‘The Colour of Poison’, was expected to know so much about such treatments, even if the reasons why they worked – or didn’t – were beyond the medical knowledge of the time.

N.B. One fifteenth century school book gives a list of collective nouns, including ‘a poison of treaclers’ (i.e. apothecaries who sold medicinal treacle).

Toni is offering a copy of her book, The Colour of Poison, as this week's giveaway -ADD LINK

About Toni Mount
Toni Mount earned her research Masters degree from the University of Kent in 2009 through study of a medieval medical manuscript held at the Wellcome Library in London. Recently she also completed a Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing with the Open University. Toni has published many non-fiction books, but always wanted to write a medieval thriller, and her first novel “The Colour of Poison” is the
result. Toni regularly speaks at venues throughout the UK and is the author of
several online courses available at

The Colour of Poison is published by
It is being featured in our giveaway section until May 1st. For a chance to win a copy, click HERE

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Crests, Blood and Power – The Howards' Rise in Tudor Times

By Lizzy Drake

Photo 1: Framlingham Castle, the seat of the Dukes of Norfolk (Holly Stacey)

The Howard dynasty in Tudor times was a highly rich and powerful one, but there was a time when their precious heads were on the proverbial block before being given a chance to prove themselves loyal to the 'new' Tudor crown. Having been Yorkist and fought for Richard III where Henry Tudor took the crown at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the family was viewed with suspicion, not in part for the fact that they had a Plantagenet lineage and could, with the backing of loyal Howard and old Yorkist ties, easily have attempted to take the crown for themselves. Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, was stripped of his title and lands and sent to the tower for three years. The former Duke was, however, clever enough to know how to show his loyalties had changed, for when an opportunity for escape from the tower came, he refused to take it. Who knew that his family would land so close to the king in the form of two queens. Or, perhaps, Thomas Howard had a keen sense of destiny, for the years to come allowed him to show both his guile and servitude in rising back to his position and beyond.

While Thomas Howard was in prison, his family and heirs were still expected to serve the crown and country, providing from their own pocket to help defend and serve it. The Howard male children were educated in court and also taught to train in combat for any upcoming threat. Thomas Howard II was also betrothed to the queen's sister, Anne but because the alliance was so threatening to the current monarchy, their vows were postponed until 1495, though it was the Queen who had to provide her sister and husband 20 shillings a week (Denny, p.21). In 1503, Margaret Tudor was escorted by the Howards to her groom, King James IV and then later, both Thomas Howards travelled on an embassy to Flanders, an obvious show of trust and by the time the crown passed to Henry VIII, the Howards had managed to become an invaluable asset.

It proved a good move for Henry VII not to have executed Thomas Howard, as he proved to be a superb ally both in court politics and, in particular, in the battlefield. It was at the Battle of Flodden (during Henry VIII's reign, and where the Scottish king lost his life) Howard truly proved his worth, fighting so valiantly, he earned back his family title of Duke of Norfolk, while his son, also a Thomas Howard, took the title Earl of Surrey (soon to be passed down to his own son, as Thomas Howard the elder was an aged 70 years by this point and soon to be laid to rest).

Photo 2: portrait of Thomas Howard 2nd Duke of Norfolk

In fact, things were going so well for the Howards by late 1513 that they had fortune enough to make many repairs on their family estate at Framlingham Castle, rebuilding the gatehouse and adding the coat of arms above it, putting up highly decorative Tudor chimneys and the chambers adjoining the gatehouse to accommodate the castle porter and staff. The coat of arms, still visible today as visitors enter the castle, is highly chipped, but a beautiful reminder of the seat of power the Howards held with the Tudors from this upward turning point.

Photo 3: The Howard coat of arms on the new gatehouse built in 1513 (Holly Stacey)

The Howards adopted the motto, Sola virtus invictia, 'Virtue alone invincible'. Their coat of arms was 'red with a silver stripe between six silver crosses', with the crest of a lion 'on a chapeau (Denny, p 20).” Though a contemporary drawing of the Howard coat of arms for Henry Howard, earl of Surrey (beautifully shown in the Framlingham Castle Guidebook), included the cross with the three-pointed label in his arms which was Edward the Confessor's emblem, in which claimed the royal ancestry. Evidently, claiming to be royal blood was too dangerous to broadcast, especially to a king who wanted to eliminate all potential rivals in an increasingly dangerous court, although at the time, there was a power struggle between the Seymours and the Howards. While the very ill King Henry VIII was waning, the Seymours were concerned that the Howards would make a bid for the throne by putting the rightful heir, Edward, aside, and ascending though their Plantagenet bloodline; something they were supposedly able to do should the king have no heir, or as puts it:

'Returning to England in 1546, he found the king dying and his old enemies the Seymours incensed by his interference in the projected alliance between his sister Mary and Sir Thomas Seymour, Jane’s brother; he made matters worse by his assertion that the Howards were the obvious regents for Prince Edward, Henry VIII’s son by Jane Seymour. The Seymours, alarmed, accused Surrey and his father of treason and called his sister, the Duchess of Richmond, to witness against him. She made the disastrous admission that he was still a close adherent to the Roman Catholic faith. Because Surrey’s father, the Duke of Norfolk, had been considered heir apparent if Henry VIII had had no issue, the Seymours urged that the Howards were planning to set Prince Edward aside and assume the throne. Surrey defended himself unavailingly and at the age of 30 was executed on Tower Hill. His father was saved only because the king died before he could be executed ('

Photo 4: Henry Howard (wiki photos)

The Howards created an amazing dynasty for themselves and it was clear that they took family honour to the absolute limit and coupled it with unparalleled ambition for power cutting just shy of actually seizing the throne, though it does seem evident that Henry Howard had this intent. Historians often dwell on the two women who, through the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, found themselves as Henry VIII's queens, and the other, who produced some of his illegitimate children, but it may be said that without the cleverness, patience and political acumen of Thomas Howard the elder and the younger, neither would have worn their crown, nor indeed, would the family have risen from the ashes like a phoenix of lore.


deLisle, Leanda; Tudor, The Family Story; Vintage Press, London 2014
Denny, Joanna; Katherine Howard, A Tudor Conspiracy; Piatkus, 2005
Doran, Susan; The Tudor Chronicles 1485-1603; Metro Books, New York
Elton, G.R.; England Under the Tudors; Routledge, 1991
English Heritage; Framlingham Castle

Online references:


 A Corpse in Cipher amazon.comLizzy Drake has been studying Medieval and Tudor England for over 15 years and has an MA in Medieval Archaeology from the University of York, England. She has been writing for much longer but the Elspet Stafford Mysteries began her writing careen in the genre. The First Elspet Stafford book, A Corpse in Cipher - A Tudor Murder Mystery, is available now.

When not writing or researching, Lizzy can be found reading or gardening. She balances time between her two homes in Essex, UK and California.

You can follow her on Twitter (Lizzy Drake@wyvernwings)

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Defining 'Nobility' in Later Anglo-Saxon England

By Annie Whitehead

The word ‘nobility’ is a vague term; no society in history could be described as having an upper social tier whose members were all of equal wealth and statues. The Anglo-Saxon aristocracy certainly had more than one stratum, and any detailed study of these men must entail a definition of these different levels.

In the eighth-century, Bede wrote of a group of men called ‘comites’, the Anglo-Saxon translation of which is ‘gesiths'. In origin, a gesith was an honourable companion, usually of the king. Most often he would be of noble birth, and he would be either a retainer or the holder of an estate. By the tenth-century, the word was no longer used to describe a personal retainer. HR Loyn [1] suggests that by this time the gesith may well have been a retired retainer settled on his estate. He suggests further that the pattern in the tenth-century may have been as follows:

seal of Godwin the thegn - 11thc
"The retainer at court was termed ‘thegn’. If he was promoted , he became an ealdorman, and when he retired he became a ‘gesith’."

Whatever the truth of the matter, it is clear that by the tenth-century the thegns were subordinate to the king's thegns and to the ealdormen, and that the gesith was no longer engaged in active service for the king.

One distinction between the gesith and the thegn was that of age; the thegn was a young man, the gesith more mature. Initially the thegn was not a powerful man, the term sometimes merely denoting a servant, albeit one who was free. By the tenth-century, however, ‘thegn’ had taken on a more specialised meaning. The law codes of the period show us something of how the thegns had become more important as servants of the king. They were given the responsibility of helping the king to ensure that the church was observing its rules:

"And I and my thegns shall compel our priests to that which the pastors of our souls direct us (clerical celibacy)." [2]

It is also clear that the thegns now had their own class, with a recognisable rank:

“And my thegns are to have their dignity in my time as they had in my father’s.” [3]

Anglo-Saxon society was not a static one. Thegnship had developed as a class of its own, but this did not mean that one had to be born into that class to belong to it.

“And if a ceorl prospered, that he possessed fully five hides of land of his own, a bell and a castle-gate, a seat and a special office in the king’s hall, then was he henceforth entitled to the rights of a thegn.” [4]

It is doubtful how many achieved this, but the opportunity was at least there in theory.

Thegns were graded according to their relationship with the king. The king's thegns would recognise no other lord than the king [5] and might themselves be lords to other thegns. The lesser thegns would have a lord other than the king. Their heriot (see below) would go to their lord, not the king.

From among his thegns the king appointed ealdormen. These men were the king’s representatives in the localities. The main ealdordoms were Northumbria [6], East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex. The office was not strictly hereditary, although many ealdormen succeeded their fathers. In the king’s lands his presence was felt through his reeves, but increasingly the king’s reeves were used as a check against the ealdormen. A grant of King Aethelred II’s shows that an ealdorman had no authority to deal with a breach of law by a king’s reeve, and had to appeal directly to the king. [7]

Aethelred II (Unraed - 'Unready')

The Witan was the high council, and its members were powerful wealthy thegns, and bishops and abbots. The bishops were powerful men, usually from noble families themselves. The witness lists to royal charters show a strict order of seniority. The king signs first, followed by the archbishops, bishops and abbots. The ealdormen sign next, followed by the king’s thegns. Among the ealdormen, there was also a strict order; the most influential of the moment signed above the others. Usually the order changed following the death of an ealdorman, but it was possible for some to gain prominence without such an event. Eadric Streona, Ealdorman of Mercia in the reign of Aethelred II, headed the lists in the lifetime of men who had at one time been his seniors.

charter showing the witness list

The heriot (war-gear), as defined in II Cnut [8] also demonstrated seniority of rank: among the earl’s heriot is the requirement "eight horses, four saddled and four unsaddled.” The requirement of the king’s thegn is "four horses, two saddled and two unsaddled.” Of the lesser thegn the corresponding requirement is for "a horse and its trappings."

The law of the North People, and the Law of the Mercians [9] show the position of the nobility in relation to lesser men. The Law of the North People sets out the wergild* thus:

  • The wergild of the archbishop and the atheling is 15,000 thrymsas
  • That of a bishop and an ealdorman 8,000 thrymsas
  • That of a king’s high-reeve 4,000 thrymsas
  • That of a mass-thegn and a secular thegn 2,000 thrymsas
  • A ceorl’s (churl) wergild is 266 thrymsas

(* wergild was essentially the price, or worth, of a man's life; a payment due to the family by the person who killed him)

In the Law of the Mercians a ceorl's wergild is 200 shillings, and a thegn’s wergild is "six times as much." So between the thegn and the atheling, the wergild is doubled each time. In contrast, the thegn’s wergild is six times that of a ceorl. Despite the professed opportunity for social mobility, the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was clearly set apart from the rest of society by a substantial distance.


As well as possessing considerable rights over his lands and his vassals, a lord had a duty to safe-guard his men. The terms of the fealty oath are vague, but there is other evidence which describes more fully the nature of the personal bond between a man and his lord. In the reign of Edward the elder (899-924), a letter was written to the king describing the history of an estate at Fonthill, Wiltshire. [10] It describes how a thief, Helmstan, was required to give an oath to clear himself of the charges brought against him. He asked his lord Ordlaf to intercede for him, which Ordlaf did, even though his man was guilty. Although this practice was forbidden [11] there are many other illustrations in the law codes of the lord’s obligations to his man.

A tenant who did not pay his rent could expect his lord to be lenient and exact no penalty. [12] If an accused man ran away, his lord had the responsibility of paying the man's wergild to the king. [13] Any master who forced his slave to work on a feast day forfeited the slave and paid a fine. [14] An accused man could expect his lord to stand surety for him, and if the man ran away from the ordeal it was the lord who had to pay his wergild. [15]

The betrayal of a lord was beyond compensation, according to the laws of Cnut. [16] The personal bond was a two-way responsibility, and the man must be seen to honour his obligations to his lord. The Battle of Maldon shows how seriously this responsibility was taken. Eadric resolves to serve his lord in battle and "now that the time had come to fight, before his lord he duly kept his vow (hold-oath)." When Byrhtnoth is killed, his men have a duty to avenge his death. Traditionally this means that they have to kill the whole of the Viking army to ensure that they kill the actual soldier by whose hands Byrhtnoth has been slain:

“They all intended one of two results,
To love their lives or to avenge their dear one.”

In this stratified society, every man had a duty to protect the men in his care, and to serve the man who protected him. At the top level, the king of course served no-one, and had only the responsibility of protecting his people. At the lowest levels of society the obligation would be only service. The aristocracy had two duties: they served the king (and their lord if they had one) and in return they were rewarded. They had their own men who served them as lord, and in return they offered their man protection, especially under the law.

[1] Gesiths and Thegns in Anglo-Saxon England from the Seventh to the Tenth century - HR Loyn
[2] IV Edgar 1.8.
[3] IV Edgar 2.a.
[4] EHD (English Historical Documents) Vol 1 52 - A Compilation on Status (1002-1023)
[5] "And no-one is to have any jurisdiction over a king's thegn except the king himself." III Aethelred 11
[6] Because of the Scandinavian influence in the north, the ealdormen in Northumbria were termed 'Eorl'
[7] EHD 117 page 525
[8] EHD 50 page 419
[9] EHD 52 - A Compilation on Status
[10] EHD 102 page 501
[11] II Cnut 20.1 "Many an over-bearing man will, if he can and may, defend his man which ever way it seems to him that he can defend him more easily ... but we will not allow that abuse."
[12] II&III Edgar 1.1.
[13] II Cnut 31.1.
[14] II Cnut 45.3.
[15] III Aethelred 4. & 6.2.
[16] II Cnut 64.

Annie Whitehead is a history graduate who now works as an Early Years music teacher. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016. Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, which tells the story of Aelfhere of Mercia, a nobleman in the time of King Edgar, is available now, and is the story of one man’s battle to keep the monarchy strong and the country at peace, when successive kings die young.
Find her on her author page HERE

Buy Alvar the Kingmaker
Buy To Be A Queen

Monday, April 25, 2016

Giveaway - The Colour of Poison by Toni Mount

Author Toni Mount is giving away a copy of her book, The Colour of Poison

The narrow, stinking streets of medieval London can sometimes be a dark
place. Burglary, arson, kidnapping and murder are every-day events. The
streets even echo with rumours of the mysterious art of alchemy being
used to make gold for the King.
Join Seb, a talented but crippled artist, as he is drawn into a web of
lies to save his handsome brother from the hangman's rope. Will he find
an inner strength in these, the darkest of times, or will events outside
his control overwhelm him? Only one thing is certain - if Seb can't save his brother, nobody can.

To enter the draw, which closes on 1st May 2016, leave a comment and contact details below:

John 'Lackland', Lord of Ireland.

By E.M. Powell

I doubt if King John, youngest son of Henry II, needs much introduction. The 800th anniversary of his issuing of Magna Carta was celebrated only last year. Being referred to as Bad King John also tends to stick in people’s minds.  As for Robin Hood, I will say nothing.

Royal Mail Magna Carta Stamp.
© E.M. Powell

But I’d like to share one of the lesser known episodes in John’s life: his first campaign in Ireland. For on this day, April 25, in 1185, John landed at the port of Waterford on the south east coast with three hundred knights in tow. He hadn’t arrived as King John, but as the eighteen year old Lord of Ireland. No spoilers, of course, but John being John, all did not go well.

King John as shown on Waterford's Great Charter Roll c. 1370
© E.M. Powell

We need to rewind a little to understand why John went there in the first place. Because EHFA is such a wonderful, well-informed blog, you can read a detailed account of the reasons in this post from last month here. The short recap is that Henry II first visited Ireland in 1171. He had already sent troops there and he wanted to stamp his authority on it. But by 1185 it was in a state of major unrest, with native Irish kings and Henry’s Anglo-Norman barons who had taken Irish lands fighting it out for power.

One of those barons was Hugh de Lacy, Henry’s first Lord of Meath. De Lacy had turned into a major thorn in Henry’s side, being far too good at his job for the King’s liking. Yes, de Lacy had taken the ancient kingdom of Meath (Mide) from the Irish and constructed many castles. But he’d also married a daughter of Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (Rory O’Connor), the Irish High King. Some chroniclers suggest that de Lacy was lining up to take all of Ireland from Henry.

Hugh de Lacy's Trim Castle in Co. Meath.
© E.M. Powell

The King looked for a solution and believed he’d found it in John. He’d made the nine year old John Lord of Ireland at the Council of Oxford in 1177. Now that John was an adult, it was time for him to assume responsibility for the troublesome isle. One would think John would have been pleased. After all, he’d borne the nickname of ‘Lackland’ (given to him by Henry) for some time. Trouble was, John possibly had his sights set on the Holy Land. Its ruler, King Baldwin IV, was stricken with leprosy and the Patriarch of Jerusalem arrived in England looking for a prince to succeed him.

John’s desires were thwarted.  On the 18th March 1185, the Patriarch came before Henry’s Council at Clerkenwell for a decision. The decision was a refusal. John would not be going east, but west. He would be going to Ireland. Even worse news for John was that he would not be going as king. Yes, the title of Lord of Ireland was Dominus Hiberniae- dominus being the title accorded to a king before he was actually crowned. But Pope Lucius III would not sanction it. John would remain under the superior lordship of the Angevin dominions. He was not to be independent of his father. Henry knighted John at Windsor on March 31st and sent him on his way.

The port  of Waterford today.
© E.M. Powell

Happily for us, Henry also included his royal clerk, Gerald of Wales, in the entourage and Gerald wrote an account of the expedition in his Expugnatio Hibernica (The Conquest of Ireland). I did mention earlier that all did not go well and it was so from pretty much the moment John’s boots met Irish soil. Still standing tall on Waterford’s quay is the medieval Reginald’s Tower, part of the old city’s fortifications which date from the time of the Vikings.

Reginald's Tower, Waterford City
© E.M. Powell

While the Tower would have looked a bit different in John’s day, we do know precisely what he did as he stood outside it. A group of powerful Irish chieftains came to pay tribute to him as Henry’s representative, greeting him as their lord. John’s response? Well, according to Gerald, John ‘pulled some of them about by their beards, which were large and flowing according to the native custom.’

Suitably angered and very unimpressed, the Irish made for the court of one of the Irish King of Thomond, Domnall Mór Ua Briain (Donal O'Brien), where they reported back to him and others on the insults and how John was ‘a mere youth…a stripling who only listened to youthful advice.’ Worse, they decided that rather than make peace with John, they would ‘plot to resist [John’s force]…guard the privileges of their ancient freedom’ with their lives, and ‘make pacts’ to resist him. Those ‘who had previously been enemies became friends for the first time.’

One of Gerald's depictions of the Irish.
British Library- Public Domain

Having alienated many of the Irish, John then began making grants of land to his own friends— land that loyal supporters of Henry already held. The result, according to Gerald, was that those who were dispossessed ‘went over to the side of the enemy.’ And John carried on. He set about establishing castles to take control of the land. We know from Gerald that there were three sites: Tibberaghny, in Co.  Kilkenny, Ardfinnan in Co. Tipperary and Lismore in Co. Waterford.

Slievenamon, Co. Tipperary, as viewed from the site at Tibberaghny.
© E.M. Powell

These speculative grants were a huge mistake, unleashing the ire of the likes of the powerful Ua Briain. Ua Briain had been one of the first to submit to Henry back in 1171, yet ‘the stripling’ John would receive nothing of the sort. Fierce fighting broke out and there were losses of life on both sides. John (or rather, his more able men) made a few gains, but his forces were well and truly routed in equal amounts by some of the native Irish kings. His less able men drank, caroused and fought with each other. When John failed to pay them, they deserted.

As with so many of his writings, Gerald can be accused of bias, for it was his Cambro-Norman kinsmen who made up the first wave of colonists in Ireland. Yet Roger of Howden is of the same view, listing selfish behaviour by John, non-payment of his armies and subsequent desertion and bad losses to the Irish.

The Comeragh Mountains, Co. Waterford.
© E.M. Powell

One would have thought that John would have accepted some responsibility for his failings. But no. Instead, he accused one of Henry’s men of treacherous dealings with the Irish. And that man of course was Hugh de Lacy. There is no suggestion that de Lacy did anything to interfere with John’s campaign. He was by now immensely powerful: Constable of Dublin, and still holding his own vast lordship of Meath. De Lacy did join John for part of his travels through Ireland. What is interesting is that while de Lacy witnessed several of John’s charters, none of them are John’s grants of lands to his friends. It is possible that de Lacy, hugely successful on the battlefield as well as on the diplomatic front, wanted nothing to do with John’s cronyism.

Ninth Century High Cross, Durrow, County Offaly.
© E.M. Powell

John’s campaign ended in Dublin where he stayed until returning to Henry in December 1185, after only eight months as Lord of Ireland. He complained bitterly to the King about the Irish and Hugh de Lacy, and squarely blamed de Lacy for his failure. If de Lacy was poised to make a bid for Ireland, we will never know. De Lacy was assassinated at Durrow, Co. Offaly in July 1186 by an Irish axe-man. Henry is said to have rejoiced at the news and made preparations to send John back to Ireland to assume control. A new Pope had agreed to John’s coronation.

It was not to be. John was mid-journey when news came of his brother Geoffrey’s death. Now just two sons remained: Richard and John. John was needed elsewhere. It would be another twenty four years before John would set foot in Ireland again. And by 1210, he would no longer be Lackland: he would be King John. But he still would not be the English King of Ireland. That would take more than 300 years and another Henry- Henry VIII.
Church, S.D.: King John: New Interpretations, Boydell Press (1999).
Cosgrove, Art, ed: A New History of Ireland Volume II, Medieval Ireland: Oxford University Press (2008)
Duffy, Seán: Ireland in the Middle Ages: Palgrave Macmillan (1997)
Flanagan, Marie-Therese: Irish Society, Anglo-Norman Settlers, Angevin Kingship: Interactions in Ireland in the late 12th Century, Oxford: Clarendon Press (1998)
McLynn, Frank: Lionheart & Lackland: King Richard, King John and the Wars of Conquest: Vintage Books (2007)
Morris, Marc: King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta: Hutchinson (2015)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: King John/Hugh de Lacy
Scott, A.B. & Martin, F.X. eds., The Conquest of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis: Dublin, Royal Irish Academy (1978)
Veach, Colin, “Relentlessly striving for more”: Hugh de Lacy in Ireland, History Ireland, Issue 2, Volume 15 (2007)
Warren, W.L., King John, Yale University Press (1981)

E.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers THE FIFTH KNIGHT and THE BLOOD OF THE FIFTH KNIGHT have been #1 Amazon bestsellers and a Bild bestseller in Germany. Book #3 in the series, THE LORD OF IRELAND, about John’s failed campaign in Ireland, was published by Thomas & Mercer on April 5 2016.

Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. As well as blogging and editing for EHFA, she is a contributing editor to International Thriller Writers The Big Thrill magazine, reviews fiction & non-fiction for the Historical Novel Society and is part of the HNS Social Media Team. Find out more by visiting
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Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Undaunted Eliza Roper, Dowager Lady Vaux of Harrowden

by Linda Root
(C) R.Neil Marshman, re Wikimedia, Creative Commons

When the Gunpowder Treason unraveled in 1605, although the initial action took place in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament, the drama played out in the English Midlands, which was where it all had started. The names we associate with the historical event belong to men like Catesby and Percy, and of course, the scapegoat Guido Fawkes. Among the most fascinating of the principals in the story were aristocratic women of recusant families, not the least of which was Eliza Roper, known to history as the Dowager Lady Vaux.

Some earlier historians have mistakenly conjectured the Vaux women of Harrowden were related to Guy (aka Guido) Fawkes, but that is not true; they were far more prominent in Midland society than the soldier caught red-handed in the cellar below the House of Lords. The confusion comes in the pronunciation of the name Vaux, which rhymes with Fawkes, and therefore sounds like 'vox'. Also, the well-known recusant Anne Vaux's Italianate cursive displayed 'V's that look very much like 'f's, just as Elizabeth Tudor's written 's' appears as an 'f.' The speculation that aristocratic Anne had taken Fawkes's name is utterly absurd. Almost everyone living in the Midlands knew Anne Vaux. She would not have given Guido Fawkes a second glance.

Roper Tomb Effigy-Elizabeth
and one of her sisters, PD
While Anne Vaux's association with the Jesuit Superior Henry Garnet made her a suspect in the events of November 1605, she was not the only female Vaux of Great Harrowden Hall, who became a suspect in the conspiracy. Her sister-in-law Elizabeth, the self-styled Dowager Lady Vaux, was of equal mettle and perhaps, even greater complicity. In today's language, she would be described as an 'amazing piece of work.' Courage, defiance, loyalty to those who shared her views and religious zeal were among her attributes. She was also surprisingly rich, considering the frequency with which both her father Sir John Roper, Baron Teynham; her father-in-law Lord Henry Vaux; and her husband  George were imprisoned and fined for their recusancy.

One of many Midlands coaching inns where mass was said,
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (pubic domain)

Midland England was not exclusively a Catholic enclave, but an area of old wealth and considerable splendor. The landed gentry and titled nobles tended to get along with their neighbors, regardless of their religions. Even after King James disappointed Midland Catholics after his ascension by failing to remove restrictions on the celebration of Mass, he did not consider well-behaved Catholic land barons as hostiles. In August 1603, three short months before the Gunpowder was set to ignite, the king visited Harrowden Hall for a hunt. While there is no evidence to support the conjecture, one wonders who else might have been hiding in the house while he was there. The handsome English Jesuit John Gerard had lived there off and on for a large part of six years, retreating into one of Harrowden's several hidey holes when strangers visited, but more often, living openly under one of his several aliases. He is said to have been especially well-received by Lady Vaux's female friends.

During the months preceding November 5, 1605, the vast estates of Harrowden were managed by the Dowager Lady Vaux, Eliza Roper. While her sisters-in-law Eleanore Brokesby and Anne Vaux are better known because of their link to the Jesuit Superior, the martyred Father Henry Garnet and their possible involvement in the English Jesuit mission, Eliza Roper was just as bold in her championship of the flamboyant young Jesuit Father John Gerard, and equally willing to take life-threatening risks.
Father John Gerard, Wikimedia (Public Domain Art)

Eliza R, as she often signed her name, was a daughter of Sir John Roper, First Baron Teynham, and his wife Elizabeth Parke, aristocrats living in Kent. However, her marriage to George Vaux, the second oldest son of Lord Vaux of Harrowden was not contracted between the families. It is said that on the day of their marriage, George’s older brother died, although that is probably off by a month of more. But because of his defiance of the protocol of sixteenth-century marriages of children of the titled, he forfeited his claim to the barony to his younger brother Ambrose.  Elizabeth Tudor was not the only one offended by the marriage.  Lord Vaux was quoted commenting on his daughter-in-law's 'creditless carriage when she went for a maiden.'

In addition to a dowry of 1,500 pounds and 400 pounds worth of clothes and jewels, Eliza brought her strong-willed ways to Harrowden and soon was in command of the mansion and everyone who lived there. Her in-laws moved to their smaller manor house at Irthlingborough, which some writers assert was at Eliza’s insistence. The couple had six children, and Eliza treated her brother-in-law Ambrose as if he were the seventh. Other family members reported he was entirely under her thumb. When her husband George reconciled with his father in 1594, Ambrose cheerfully ceded his claim to the barony back to his brother.

The following year, George Vaux died suddenly, and his father, Lord Vaux, died shortly after that. The title to the barony passed to George and Eliza’s young son Edward, who at the time of his father and grandfather's deaths was a ward of the Queen. His mother sued for his guardianship and won. According to both the Jesuit Priest John Gerard and Eliza’s son, Eliza was devastated by her husband’s death and kept to her room for more than a year. For at least four more years, she rarely ventured into the areas of the house George had occupied before his death. Although the title to the barony had never been conferred on George, Eliza styled herself as the Dowager Lady Vaux, and no one contradicted her. Those who did apparently did not fare well.

Even though the Ropers of Kent and the Vauxes of Great Harrowden were known recusants, their transgressions were often overlooked. The Vaux Barony had been a statutory creation, to the First Baron Vaux, Nicholas, for his personal loyalty and military service to Henry VII. Thus, the Lords Vaux and their families escaped the harsher punishment meted out to many known recusants. The family history of giving sanctuary to hunted priests was treated lightly they openly supported the cause of the martyred Jesuit, Edmund Campion. Apparently they had come under the religious and political sway of  Sir Thomas Tresham, whose son Francis became a familiar name to those who are students of the Gunpowder Treason.

The Gunpower Conspirators, Wikimedia Commons

In the years before her husband’s sudden death, George Vaux's association with militant recusant Tresham could no longer be overlooked. Both he and Tresham were imprisoned as Non-Conformists and heavily fined. Some sources indicate the family was on the brink of financial ruin. Eliza must have been an astute money manager, because before the ascension of James VI to the English throne as James I, she was a real estate magnate of considerable acumen, with farms and properties in the Midlands and residential properties scattered about metropolitan London, most with hidey holes designed by the Jesuit craftsman-turned-Jesuit-priest, the martyred Jesuit, Saint Nicholas Owens.

Tresham disliked Eliza and considered her a negative influence on his wife. Apparently she had also filed a lawsuit against him for embezzling funds of her father-in-law. Much of the negative information about her character comes from him. To the contrary, information found in the journals of Jesuit historians takes a different view. Not long after George's death, she converted Great Harrowden Hall into a makeshift Jesuit college, aiming to educate the sons of recusants until they were old enough to leave England for Cardinal Allen's Jesuit College in Douai. Many Catholic sources consider her a heroine of the counter-Reformation.

In the year in which she recovered the guardianship of her son, Eliza moved the flamboyant priest, Father John Gerard, into her household. Many Catholic sources say she vowed never to remarry and devoted the remainder of her life to the restoration of the Catholic Religion in England. Other sources indicate that for at least the next decade, the focus of her devotion was directed to serving and protecting the dashing John Gerard, who spent most of the next ten years living in her house and acting as her confessor. But those were not his only duties. Gerard was also at the forefront of the Jesuit mission to England. When his presence was needed in London, Eliza often followed and provided the funding and the room and board required to advance his cause. Gerard was known as getting on well with aristocratic ladies, but unlike his Superior Father Henry Garnet's relationship with Eliza's more famous sister Anne Vaux whose mutual devotion subjected them to slander, the relationship between Eliza and Gerard was free of sexual innuendo. While he may have behaved like a gentleman, he was not humble. His memoirs are sprinkled with accounts of how easily he converted members of the fair sex who visited at Harrowden.
Great Harrowden Hall in modern times,  a prestigious golf club
Wikimedia, (C) R.Neil Marshman, Creative Commons.

Eliza's brush with life imprisonment or possible death came at the hands of one of her neighbors, Lady Anne Markham, a Catholic double agent in the service of the Earl of Salisbury, Robert Cecil. When Cecil decided to subvert the Gunpowder Treason to serve his own designs and use it to rid England of its Jesuits. Lady Markham offered to lead Cecil's Watchers to Father Gerard. Because of his aristocratic background and his high profile, he had joined Father Garnet on Cecil's 'Hit List.' On November 12, Lady Markham and a band of Cecil's men arrived at Harrowden House with a warrant for Father Gerard's arrest in hand, but after a thorough search, he was not found. Nevertheless, on November 15, while the search was still in progress, the Dowager Lady Vaux was herded off to London to face Salisbury's tribunal. Additional suspicion had fallen upon her based on language in a letter she had written to a cousin who was also being investigated by Cecil's henchmen. It and Lady Markham's assertions were enough to haul Eliza before Cecil's interrogators, but not enough to convict her of anything more than insolence. When at least one among them, probably her family friend Northampton, urged her to give up Gerard, her response was, in essence, that she did not know Gerard or where he might be hiding, and if she did, she would not tell them, an outright bold-faced lie. Then she is quoted as saying, "I would rather die first."  In spite of strong circumstantial evidence that she had knowledge of the plot and often harbored priests, she was never charged.

Rather than going to the Tower like her sister-in-law Anne Vaux, she was placed under house arrest in the home of Sir William Swinnerton, a local alderman, and the king's wine steward. By early 1606, she was generally unsupervised although probably watched. She remained in London overseeing her properties and enterprises without interference. From the autumn of 1605 to May 1606, at least two of her London houses were leased to a charming, tall and handsome English aristocratic gentleman, visiting London under one of the several aliases he used. His true name, of course, was John Gerard.

On May 3, 1606, the same day as Father Henry Garnet's execution, Gerard, dressed in Spanish livery and disguised as a footman, was smuggled onto a ship of Hapsburg diplomats heading home to the Spanish Netherlands after having visited the Court of James I, to congratulate him for having thwarted the Gunpowder Conspirators. Eliza Roper had participated in the arrangements and given him more than a thousand florins as spending money for the trip.

The  Westminster Gatehouse, Wikimedia, Public Domain
Eliza Roper, Dowager Lady Vaux, never saw John Gerard again, but it was not her last arrest. In 1611, she spent time in the notorious Westminster Gatehouse, and the following year was sentenced to life imprisonment and housed at Newgate, but within months, she was back on the family estate in the Midlands. She is known to have established a second school on the premises for aristocratic English boys who wished to follow in the footsteps of Father John Gerard and the other Jesuits she had harbored.

In his memoirs, Gerard refers to her fondly but never names her, and he insulates her from any wrongdoing in the Gunpowder Treason. There is no record of where she is buried or when she died, but records show her living into the reign of Charles I.

Sources include but are not limited to The Advent, citing Godfrey Anstruther, Vaux of Harrowden and Jessie Childs, God's Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England, as well as the books seen above, including Biography of a Hidden Priest, and God's Secret Agents.


Historical novelist Linda Root left a position as a senior prosecutor and Supervising Deputy District Attorney anticipating a career writing True Crime Fiction. She began by compiling a Murder Book, seeking to convict Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots, of her husband Lord Darnley’s murder. Instead of the book she planned, her research inspired her to write a novel. The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, first published in 2011. Since then, she has written The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots, and four stand-alone books in the series The Legacy of the Queen of Scots, with more to come. They are 1) Unknown Princess ( formerly The Midwife's Secret; 2) The Last Knight’s Daughter,(formerly the Other Daughter); 3) 1603 The Queen’s Revenge, 4: In the Shadow of the Gallows; and an adult historical fantasy, The Green Woman, written as J.D.Root. Visit her Author’s Page on Amazon for a complete list.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Pinkie and Blue Boy ~ A Matched Set?

by Debra Brown

58 1/4 x 40 1/4 in. (148 x 102.2 cm.)
Oil on Canvas
The Huntington Library,
Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
The Blue Boy
70 5/8 x 48 3/4 in. (179.4 x 123.8 cm.)
Oil on Canvas
 The Huntington Library,
Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Pinkie hangs opposite The Blue Boy in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, USA. Seeing copies from time to time as I drifted through life, I imagined they were a matched set--perhaps siblings or cousins. Did you?

In fact, they were painted about 24 years apart by two different artists. How lovely for us that Pinkie turns to our right and the Boy to the left, and hanging together they make a wondrous, harmonious pairing.

Titled Sarah Barrett Moulton: Pinkie by the museum, the eleven year old girl's portrait was done by Thomas Lawrence in 1794. The portrait has atmosphere and motion with the storm blowing her gown and ribbons to the left.

Detail of  Pinkie, picture reversed
Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton, called Pinkie or Pinkey by her family, was born on 22 March 1783, in Little River, St. James, Jamaica. Hersey Barrett, a maternal ancestor, had arrived in Jamaica with Oliver Cromwell's forces in 1655. The family became wealthy landowners, slave owners, and exporters of sugar cane and rum.

By 1789 Sarah's father, Charles Moulton, had left his family. She and her siblings were raised by her mother and the Barrett family. Sarah and two brothers sailed to England in 1792 to continue their educations. Sarah attended Mrs Fenwick's school at Flint House, Greenwich, as did other children from Jamaican colonial families.

Sarah's grandmother in Jamaica, Judith Barrett, wrote to a niece living in Richmond, Surrey, to commission a portrait of her 'dear little Pinkey'. We can be grateful, for Sarah died the following year. The painting was displayed in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1795 which opened the day after her burial. It remained in the family until 1910, at one time a possession of her brother Edward, the father of the poetess and writer Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It was sold for 74,000 guineas in 1926, the highest price ever paid for a painting at auction at that date.

Thomas Lawrence, painter-in-ordinary to George III, was charging 160 guineas for a full length portrait at the time, though we do not know the amount Sarah's grandmother paid for Pinkie.

Thought to be perhaps Thomas Gainsborough's (1727–1788) most famous work, The Blue Boy is possibly a portrait of Jonathan Buttall (1752–1805), the son of a wealthy hardware merchant who owned property in the City of London and Ipswich, Suffolk. Gainsborough was working in Ipswich in the 1750s, and the Buttall family may have met him there. The artist shared a love of music and formed a friendship with the young Jonathan whom he asked to be present at his funeral.

In 1768 Jonathan inherited his father's business and was considered "an immensely rich man," but in 1796 bankruptcy forced him to auction off much property including The Blue Boy and other paintings by Gainsborough. Buttall married Mary Jump on March 31, 1798, but no children are mentioned in his will. He died in 1805 from spasms at his house on Oxford Street.

The painting is certainly a study in 17th-Century apparel and regarded as homage to Anthony van Dyck. It was bought from Buttall by the politician John Nesbitt and then came to be in the collections of the portrait painter John Hoppner followed by the Earl Grosvenor and his descendants, the dealer Joseph Duveen and finally, causing a public outcry in Britain, the American railway pioneer Henry Edwards Huntington.

Before heading to California, the painting was put on display briefly at the National Gallery and viewed by 90,000 people. The Gallery's director, Charles Holmes, wrote on the back, "Au Revoir, C.H.".

So, was it typical in those days, as today, for girls to wear pink and boys to wear blue? Actually, author Tom Williams says no. He writes that in 1918, the advice given to American parents was:
“The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
While girls obviously wore pink as in the painting above, boys would wear pink coats as a pale imitation of Redcoat uniforms. I think it also interests Americans that British baby boys wear christening gowns. That of litte Prince George is a copy of the one made for Queen Victoria's daughter, Princess Vicky. It seems fashion matters can vary for the genders from time to time and place to place.


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article by Kate Retford


The Huntington$0040:353

The Huntington$0040/0?t:state:flow=2cc0f75b-bcf8-4c37-bfc4-20f24d7e41d5

The Huntington$0040244/1?t:state:flow=74eac449-b05c-4b66-81cc-32931e8733d6


Writing About Writing

Wikimedia - Public Domain

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Debra Brown cut her teeth on the Bookhouse Books which created a nagging longing to live in a land of castles and wear flowing gowns and headdresses. Though life was busy and full, she eventually became able to do so vicariously through the characters of her books.

Her first published novel, The Companion of Lady Holmeshire (World Castle Publishing, 2011), is set in early Victorian England. Emma, a former servant girl, was chosen as companion to The Countess of Holmeshire and dragged along into polite society where she was sure to receive a rude reception.

Debra's beloved work-in-progress, For the Skylark, is on the back burner but simmering slowly. She runs the English Historical Fiction Authors blog and is an author and co-editor of Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors (Madison Street Publishing, 2013) which will soon be released as an audiobook. Please watch for Volume Two of Castles, Customs, and Kings in the September 2015.

This post is an EHFA Editor's choice. It was first published on November 4, 2014.

Friday, April 22, 2016

A Whiff of Swedish Sin

by Anna Belfrage

Back in the 1960s, Sweden – and in particular its women – acquired a reputation for being somewhat over-generous with their sexual favours. Nothing new under the sun, if you ask me, and today’s post will hopefully prove my point by introducing you to two very handsome Swedish counts, their utterly ravishing sister, and the younger count’s one and only love – who unfortunately happened to be married elsewhere. Swedish sin? I see some of you frown, wondering just how this can play a role in British history. Bear with me…

The 17th century was one of huge Swedish expansion – for a while. With more lands at their disposal, Swedish nobles took the opportunity of wiping the oh, so boring dust of their homeland from under their feet and instead set out to explore what Europe had to offer. As polyglot back then as Swedes are now – for the same reason: no one but us speaks Swedish – these my distant countrymen established themselves in many of the smaller European courts – with a preference for all those very small principalities that made up present day Germany.

Aurora - in a blonde wig
One such Swedish family in happy exile was the von Köningsmarcks. The father, Kurt Christoffer, was the son of a decorated Swedish Field Marshal. The mother, Maria Christina von Wrangel, was of impeccable Swedish lineage, and the children, Carl Johan, Aurora, Amalia and Philip Christoffer, were all four drop-dead gorgeous. For Aurora, this would offer a heady if short career as preferred mistress to the future Augustus I of Poland. Being possessed not only of astoundingly good looks but also of brains, Aurora was wise enough not to cling when Augustus tired of her. Instead, she had him set her up for life as the princess-abbess of a nice little convent – this came with the perk of a solid income and a princely title and, apparently, little in the way of religious obligations.

Maurice de Saxe
I would say that the best thing that came out of Aurora’s illicit affair with Augustus was their stunningly handsome son, Maurice de Saxe, a future Marshal of France. And seeing as Augustus had presence rather than beauty, we must assume this was all due to the Köningsmarck genes. Maybe in this portrait of Maurice we get an inkling of what his maternal uncles, Carl Johan and Philip Christoffer, may have looked like.

Pretty Elizabeth Percy
The eldest of the Köningsmarck siblings, Carl Johan, led an adventurous life which included being a Maltese Knight, fighting the Ottomans, and lion hunting in Africa. At some point, he fell head-over-heels in love with the pretty and very young English noblewoman Elizabeth Percy, and so determined was he to wed her (and, I am sad to say, get his hands on her money) that he arranged for her husband, a certain Thomas Thynne, to be murdered in February of 1682. Thynne had been out partying with the Duke of Monmouth (yes, that Duke of Monmouth) and was shot dead in his carriage by three Swedish men acting upon Carl Johan’s orders. The three Swedes were duly hanged, but having offered invaluable services to England in Morocco some years earlier, Carl Johan was instead invited to a private audience with Charles II and then allowed to escape the country. He then went on to create yet another scandal when he enticed another English lady to run away with him to Venice disguised as his page. Those Swedes, hey?

I imagine big brother Carl Johan had quite the influence on Philip Christoffer. Alternatively, our Philip was an entirely different creature, which is why when he met a certain Sophia Dorothea of Celle in 1681, he fell in love. At the time, Philip Christoffer would have been around sixteen and Sophia Dorothea was a mere fifteen. They flirted mildly, and Philip Christoffer went on to do his tour of Europe. No such tour for Sophia Dorothea. Instead in November of 1682 she was wed to Georg Ludwig of Hanover, a young man six years or so her senior. In due course, Georg Ludwig was to become George I of Great Britain.

Georg Ludwig in his younger days
This was an unhappy marriage from day one. Georg’s mother – Sophia of the Palatine, granddaughter of James I& VI and the lady through which Georg Ludwig would eventually claim the British throne – despised her little daughter-in-law for being born on the wrong side of the blanket (Sophia Dorothea was the legitimised offspring of her father’s union with his long-time mistress) and as to Georg, he was just as unenthusiastic.

However, Sophia Dorothea came with a nice annual income, and she was pretty enough not to require Georg to squish his eyes shut when doing his duty in the marital bed, so soon enough there was a little son, Georg Augustus. Some years later, there was a daughter, but by then the marriage was more or less dead, with Georg entertaining himself elsewhere, primarily with Melusine von der Schulenburg, his long-time mistress to whom he would remain devoted throughout his life.

Sophia Dorothea
As to Sophia Dorothea, her interactions with her husband mostly took the forms of arguments – at times physical – with him complaining about everything she did, how she talked, how she ate, how she carried herself…Add to this the humiliation of having her husband’s mistress at close quarters, and one imagines Sophia Dorothea’s life was not exactly a rose garden. No wonder she was ripe for the wooing when in 1688 Philip Christoffer von Köningsmarck reappeared in her life, as dashing as she remembered him, but by now an experienced man of the world.

The Hanover court did not only consist of pig-headed (as per his mother in one of her exasperated moments) Georg Ludwig. He had brothers and sisters, and Sophia Dorothea was not entirely without friends – even less so when Philip Christoffer began to frequent the court, a boon companion to Georg Ludwig’s younger brothers. Over the coming two years, Sophia Dorothea and Philip Christoffer met regularly – almost daily – but at this point nothing indicates this was anything but a sweet romance, a young woman starved for affection flirting with a handsome admirer.

Still, the infatuation was noted. Not that Georg Ludwig gave a fig about what his wife might be doing, but he wasn’t about to have her openly mooning over some fresh-faced Swedish count. So I dare say it was with something akin to relief that the Hanoverian court waved bye-bye to Philip Christoffer as he rode off to fight in a campaign on the Peloponnesus.

Philip Christoffer
However, Philip Christoffer returned. And this time – at least to judge from the correspondence between Philip Christoffer and Sophia Dorothea – innocent love flamed into passion. The ignored princess bloomed, and soon enough “everyone” knew she was entertaining Philip Christoffer more intimately than she should. As a pre-emptive measure, Philip Christoffer was therefore exiled from Hanover.

Georg Ludwig, huge hypocrite that he was, was utterly incensed. The unloving couple fought like cats and dogs, she shrieking at him that who was he to come and wag a moral finger at her, what with his mistresses with whom he openly cavorted, while he yelled that it was different, he was a man, and by God, she’d best be a dutiful wife, or else… (Okay, okay, some artistic license here. After all, I wasn’t there) Apparently, Georg Ludwig did not shy from physical violence and had to be dragged off when he attempted to strangle her.

Whatever the case, Sophia Dorothea was becoming desperate – and afraid. Philip Christoffer agreed, and so the two lovers came up with a drastic solution: she would flee the Hanoverian court and they would live happily ever after, poor but together. An escape plan was formulated and in early July of 1694, Philip Christoffer dared a visit to his lady love so as to go over the final details of their plan. They spent some hours closeted in her rooms, and under cover of the dark Philip Christoffer slipped away, shrouded in a heavy brown cloak. And that, dear people, is the last time anyone saw the love-sick count.

The Hanoverian court went into a frenzy covering all tracks that could potentially lay the blame for Philip Christoffer’s disappearance – or should that be murder? – at their door. Georg Ludwig immediately initiated divorce proceedings against his wife, citing her “abandonment” of him as the reason rather than his own repeated infidelities.

Sophia Dorothea with her children, around
the time she was banished.
In 1694, Sophia Dorothea was forcibly removed from her home and her children and effectively imprisoned at the picturesque castle of Ahlden. While given the run of the manorial gardens, her movements elsewhere were severely restricted, as was access to her person. She was never to see her children again, remaining an isolated prisoner living off her memories until her death thirty-three years later.

In 1714, Georg Ludwig succeeded to the British crown as George I. His new subjects wanted not only a king but also a queen – and neither of their new king’s mistresses made much of an impression, one being nicknamed “The Maypole” the other “The Elephant”. Prospective wives turned him down, and so – or so the story goes – someone was desperate enough to approach Sophia Dorothea and ask her if she would consider coming over to England. Her purported response was as follows: “If I truly deserve to be punished as I have been these last two decades, then I am not worthy of being your queen. If I am innocent, then your king is not worthy of being my husband.” Nice and ambiguous, one could say…

In 1726, Sophia Dorothea fell seriously ill. In her death-throes she cursed her erstwhile husband, prophesising that it would not be long before they met before the throne of God, and then they’d see… She died in November of 1726, and George forbade any signs of mourning in Hanover or England, was mightily irritated when his daughter in Prussia hanged her halls in black. In keeping with his character, he therefore ordered that his former wife be buried “somewhere in the castle garden” with none of the funeral honours a lady of her rank deserved. 

Ahlden as per an engraving from the mid 17th century
The weather, however, conspired against him, making it impossible to dig a grave, and so Sophia Dorothea’s coffined remains were packed off to the cellars to wait for spring. By then, George had relented, and the mother of his heir was properly – if discreetly – buried in Celle, her home.

In 1727, George died, some say as a consequence of his mistreated wife’s curse. While there is a pleasing symmetry to that, I find it hard to believe. Whatever the case, his treatment of Sophia Dorothea had permanently soured his relationship with his son, further compounded by how cruelly George separated his grandchildren from their parents. Not, all in all, a nice man, in my opinion. Nope, not at all.

So what happened to our young dashing count? Was he bought off with gold? Did he perhaps stumble down a staircase and break his neck? Or was he, in fact, murdered on George I’s orders? We will never know, not for sure. However, it is said that during World War II, the old Hanoverian castle was badly hit by bombs. During the clearing up, a sealed closet was discovered, in which were found bones – and fragments of a heavy brown cloak... Murder, I say. Murder most foul.

The 300 odd letters between Sophia Dorothea and her Swedish count still survive and can be found in Lund’s University library. Written in code, they display a couple headily in love, just as headily attracted to each other. However, Sophia Dorothea always maintained that she had not, in fact, crossed the dividing line between wanting to bed her handsome lover and actually doing so. Personally, in view of what came after, I hope they did, but once again, we will never know.

All images from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain  


Anna Belfrage is the successful author of eight published books, all of them part of The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, this is the story of Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex Lind - two people who should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him.

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first instalment, In the Shadow of the Storm, was published on November 1, 2015. 

For more information about Anna and her books, please visit her website. If not on her website, Anna can mostly be found on her blog.